Love her or not, one admirable factor about Madonna is that she has never stopped being the Material Girl. She’s doing this at 54 and she’ll likely keep it up at 84.
Accordingly, she can smell a fellow Material Girl thousands of miles off and even from another century. You can almost sense the two of them exchanging big, toothy smiles and a nice little hug, somewhere in an ether-world of Material Girldom. “W.E.” is the culmination of that hug: Madonna’s second feature film (following the disastrous “Filth and Wisdom” in 2008), centered around Wallis Simpson, who was Britain’s postwar Duchess of Windsor.
Mrs. Simpson to the world and Wally to her close friends, the American divorcee flirted with Edward VIII, King of England — and cast a spell. The king was so besotted he abdicated the throne to marry her, and shook the world with a public speech in which he said, “I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibilty and to discharge my duties as king without the love and support of the woman I love.”
Did he ever regret it? Did they ever bicker about stuff and grow to hate each other? “W.E.” is uninterested in digging for additional information or shedding new light or any such dreary endeavor. And why bother? There’s only one ambition suitable for a Material Girl, and that’s to keep herself suspended in an eternal bubble of adoration. Madonna has homed in on Simpson as one who managed to pull that off, and her tribute is sincere.
“W.E.” is enhanced greatly by the aristocratic looks and demeanor of Andrea Riseborough as Simpson and the chemistry she has going with James D’Arcy as the king. There’s a moment when the still-secret pair are at a formal dinner party. He accidentally tears the hem of her dress under his chair leg and she reprimands him with a slow, drawling “David!” That was King Edward’s undisclosed pet name, used only among his close family. With the utterance of that name, the truth of their affair flies out like a dove from a magician’s hat. Heads turn, eyes widen. The sharp intake of breath someone draws off-camera has a brilliant, lingering effect.
However, the king’s obsession with Simpson is an oft-told tale and Madonna adds not one new stone to the sacred monument. Many scenes in “W.E.” play out like a vintage MTV clip — see the beach scene in which Simpson and Edward cavort in spankingly elegant bathing suits, their bodies rolling on the sand and covered just so by the incoming tide. Riseborough could be swapped for Madonna and it wouldn’t be that noticeable.
But no, Madonna stays behind the camera, as if she couldn’t bear to portray a woman she perhaps deems as an alter-ego. The queen-bee Material Girl may have gotten the world, but even Madonna has never managed to get a king to stop being one. (Though we can always hope her ex-husband Guy Ritchie stops being a director.)
“W.E.” works when it’s just Simpson and Edward ogling each other, but gets bogged down by the subplot of a fictional semi-heroine called Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish). Named after the glamorous Simpson, Wally is a discontented Manhattan housewife in 1998, slapped around by an oafish husband and yearning for romance. She haunts Sotheby’s on rainy afternoons, sighing over the Windsor Collection of crystal, glass and jewelry and dwelling on the enormous gulf between her and her namesake.
There Wally catches the attention of a Russian security guard, Evgeni (Oscar Isaac), and they click immediately. Their relationship (heavily sexual) marches sort of in step with Simpson and Edward’s more elegant love story, but I’m telling you, it’s a big stretch. And in a misguided act, Madonna bridges time, distance and circumstance, all for the purpose of bringing the two women — Wallis and Wally — to meet and discuss girl issues. Which, by all accounts, would be very unlike the real Simpson. She was a snob, a ruthless social climber and about as democratically minded as Marie Antoinette. Let them eat cake and become obese, that was her take on the masses. She herself reportedly existed on air and champagne and retained a lifelong commitment to being stick-thin. (She and Edward were also Nazi sympathizers, but the movie glosses over that at the speed of light.)
After the passion, scandal and “us against them” sense of fugitive excitement, what held that couple together throughout a 35-year marriage? The movie suggests that it was Simpson’s sense of self. For as long as she was in the public eye, she never lost it. No doubt Madonna can relate to that.